What makes the difference? (Part 2)

At the beginning of this year I wrote a post called What makes the difference? This was after we achieved some excellent GCSE and A level results both as a department and as a school, our option numbers were soaring at the same time (suggesting pupils were also enjoying their lessons) and there seemed to be a real sense of change in the department. I wrote the post in answer to people’s questions about what we were doing that seemed to be making this difference possible. The problem is, it is very hard to identify what it is that makes the difference in a school because we all do so much. Hattie’s research suggests that almost every intervention put in place has some kind of positive impact. We are just too close to it to see what matters.

Over the last year we have had a lot of requests from people to come in and visit our department. They want to see some of the things that I write about in action, magpie some ideas, discuss their own similar journey or get some help and advice on a particular project. They come from a wide range of schools, some local, some from the other side of the country, some deemed successful and other deemed struggling. I always ask them at the end of the day “what is it that you think makes the difference here?”

These are a few things that people have come up with.

  • A sense of quiet focus in class. Visitors often remark on how calm and orderly our lessons are, both in the department and when they have a walk around the rest of the college. We aren’t a “no excuses school”, we don’t have rules about walking around the corridors in silence, but pupils turn up to the classroom on time, come in quietly, sit down and start working. There is a lack of disruption in lessons and every minute is used.
  • Confident pupils. I always encourage visitors to talk to our students about their work. One thing a few of them have then gone on to mention is how confident they are in discussing what they have learnt. I overheard a wonderful conversation between a year 9 pupil and a visitor in which they were filling them in on the details of Lagos’ transport plans and why they felt that rural poverty in the north was going to stop it being successful.
  • “Traditional lessons”. I often find myself apologizing at the start of someone’s visit. They have traveled a long way to watch people teach and what they will see is just that. People getting on and teaching. They often comment that one big difference they notice is that teachers in our department are happy to spend longer explaining things to pupils and asking questions and that our pupils seem happy to listen and engage with this. They don’t see much in the way of novelty. A comment we have had a few times is “we would never get away with that where teach. We are expected to X, Y & Z”.
  • Level of challenge at KS3. A number of visitors have remarked that the level of depth we go into in key stage 3 surprises them, but that what surprises them more is how quickly our pupils rise to this challenge. Personally, I think this is an area we have only just begun and will be a real focus for us next year, but it is good to hear our starting point is sound.
  • A common culture. I always try to make sure that visitors can see as many people in the department as possible. One comment we often get is that despite some differences in delivery, there is clearly a common way of working. They report seeing a lot of retrieval practice, a lot of modelling, clear explanation and the challenging application.
  • Everyone seems happy. The final point is always the nicest to hear. They tell me that everyone they talk to seems very positive, both staff and students alike. They are often astonished to hear about our feedback (not marking) policy, lack of graded lesson observations (still), lack of “non-negotiables” and amount of department CPD time.

I always try to remember how lucky I am to teach where I do. Our pupils are usually well motivated and we have an amazing leadership team who work hard to create the environment where teachers can get on an teach. It feels like a school where anything is possible, we are sat on a powder keg of potential – all we as teachers have to do is grasp this opportunity to make each and every lesson count.

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